By Dan Ross
Ask David Jerkens, Del Mar's racing secretary, what he considers a key ingredient to the success of the coastal venue's latest summer season, which wrapped Monday, and his answer is a testament to the early bird.
“There was lots of enthusiasm–I could go way back to March, when my phone was ringing with questions regarding our 'Ship & Win' program,” said Jerkens, of a particular bait, now into its 11th year, used to hook out-of-state runners. “I just felt that buzz around Del Mar earlier than normal.”
All told, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club injected over $750,000 into purses through the program, which this year offered an “engagement” bonus of $4,000 on top of 50% and 40% purse supplements. These tweaks paid dividends.
Participation grew from 104 horses in 2020 to 181 this year, with the majority owned and trained by Southern Californians.
“It's usually over 70% of the total number of horses who stay in California,” Jerkens said, of the program retention rate.
Beyond Ship & Win, Jerkens applauded local participation at the entry box, which helped bolster another useful barometer of success–field size. This year's per-race average of 8.45 horses saw a slight uptick over last year's commendable average of 8.36.
“That's amongst the highest in the country,” said Jerkens. “And so, we're thrilled on this end.”
The track set a daily average wagering record of $18.38 million–an increase over last year's former record of $17.32 million, according to a press release Monday.
The handle for the meet totaled $569.98 million for 31 days of racing. The 2020 total handle of $467.60 million constituted 27 days of racing.
“The racing product was strong and extremely competitive throughout the season,” said Josh Rubinstein, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club president, who explained that the numbers were still being crunched as to breakdown between on-track and ADW wagering.
As for attendance, COVID restrictions–especially at the start of the meet–make any comparison with prior years one of “apples and oranges,” said Rubinstein.
“We knew attendance was not going to be at previous levels,” said Rubinstein. “But we wanted to open things responsibly and really focus on our core racing customers. And the feedback that we got on big days–opening day, Pacific Classic day–our core customers were really happy.”
The facility also cemented its reputation as one of the safest tracks in the country. According to California Horse Racing Board data, there were three training-related equine fatalities, and one racing, during the meet.
“For the last three years, Del Mar has ranked as the safest major racetrack in North America, and our record in 2021 is in line with those previous results,” said Rubinstein.
“He's just so exciting–I want to talk about how wonderful he is,” said trainer John Sadler, of the twice-raced colt. “I've had a lot of top horses and this one looks like the top of the top. I'm going to be measured by how we go about it, but he's unbelievable.”
Morning training has been largely geared around “getting him to relax,” said the trainer.
“He's so brilliant, has so much ability, it's just getting him to save energy,” Sadler said. “I was reading the clockers' reports before his first race, they said, 'well, we wish he would relax a little bit more.' And I thought, 'well, we've never let him run in the morning.'”
It's “tempting” though, Sadler added. “When you have a Porsche, you want to step on the gas, but we want to save the gas.”
Sadler said he won't be “baited” into pinpointing a next race just yet for the colt, owned by a partnership that includes the Hronis brothers, Summer Wind Equine, West Point Thoroughbreds, Siena Farm and Woodford Racing.
“He's so brilliant and so fast, you have to protect him from getting ahead of our scheme,” said Sadler. “We'll get him back on the track on Thursday at Santa Anita and see where we are.”
Flightline wasn't the only headline-making Sadler runner this summer. Tripoli (Kitten's Joy)'s win in the GI TVG Pacific Classic made it a third win in four years for the Sadler-Hronis Racing trainer-owner combination.
“He worked yesterday before I left [Del Mar]. Went a nice half in 48:4,” Sadler said of Tripoli. “We'll get him up to Santa Anita and see if he'll run in the [GI] Awesome Again or train him up to the Breeders' Cup.”
Because the Pacific Classic was a Win and You're In race for the Breeders' Cup, held this year at Del Mar Nov. 5-6, Tripoli's connections have breathing space in the run-up.
“We're in a good spot,” Sadler said. “He's got a really nice pattern. He's running better all the time.”
Del Mar will return to action Wednesday, Nov. 3 to kick-start the track's 15-day Bing Crosby Season. This offers a brief racing aperitif before the two-day Breeders' Cup championship begins.
Rubinstein explained that construction has already started on the quarantine barn for the international runners, and in early October, the track will begin work on the corporate hospitality furniture of the two-day festival.
“Come October, the place will start to have the Breeders' Cup purple feel to it,” Rubinstein said. “We're very excited.”